Ice Cream and Poverty

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 13, 2013

My 7-year old went to her Somali/Arab/Afar dance class one Saturday afternoon. The guard outside informed us that there was no longer dance on Saturday afternoon, no matter that we had signed up, no matter that we had paid just last week.

Discouraged, we ran errands instead and ended up at a store which sells Magnum Bars. Be thankful drool doesn’t come through the internet. Mmmm….Magnum Bars….mmmm…My husband was a country away, my twins were at boarding school two countries away, dance class was canceled…We decided to buy two ice cream bars and eat them while taking a stroll through the neighborhood together.

I left the store with three little white plastic bags of items like canned corn and tomato paste and toilet paper. As I reached the car I heard my Somali name.

“Luula! Luula!”

I knew immediately which woman it was, or rather, which type of woman it was, as awful as that sounds. And my heart sank.

Homes of hard-working, creative, intelligent people

Her type is beggar. Her name is Arwo. Her need is a black hole of desperation. I despise everything about how I think of her and confess my sin as quickly as it rises.

I put the groceries in the car, take my daughter’s hand, and walk to Arwo. We grasp fingers and ask after one another’s children. Mine are in a fabulous private school. Hers can’t afford the notebooks required to attend free local schools. People are staring. One man tries to shoo her away from me but we ignore him.

She asks for money, for 1,000 franc, about $5.50.

I say no.

She presses. I say no again.

We say goodbye and I leave her there on the corner. Lucy and I return to the car, take the ice creams out of the box where they have already started to melt. It may be the cool season, but this is still Djibouti, still the hottest country in the world.

We eat our ice cream and walk, hand in hand, and I feel sick.

I really struggled to find a photo. Wanted to be careful to not objectify or bow to stereotypes. So here is me and my lovely, holding hands.

I have a history with this woman and of wrestling with these issues of poverty, of wealth. It would be impossible to scratch the surface in a single post. Especially because the wrestling continues. I have no answer.

Should I have given her money? My reasons for saying no are complicated, guided by prayer, study, local counsel, experience. But they aren’t hard and fast, and I still waver.

Should I have offered her an ice cream bar? I know she wouldn’t have eaten it. She would have nibbled the top and left it to melt. Ice cream isn’t what she needs or wants or likes.

Should I have offered her the canned corn from my groceries? Maybe.

Should I have stopped struggling and wrestling and feeling guilty so I could enjoy the walk with my daughter? Probably.

If I ask, “What do you think/do/feel about poverty?” or “How do you handle or react to poverty?” I think the dialogue would be vague, massive, impersonal. Instead, I have presented you with one situation, one example, one narrow glimpse at an overwhelming issue many face on a daily basis.

I told you what I did. I’m not at all sure it was the right thing.

What would you have done? And, I’ll just go ahead and ask it: How do you deal with poverty?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                        Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

To read more about how I approach issues of poverty, here are two recent pieces that come at things from slightly different angles.

Contributing to Relational Poverty

Who is Poor? Who Decides?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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